The Ladder Dancer


It is a foggy night in the port of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1736. Charles Patterson, musician, sees a horseman ride down a woman and baby, pushing them into the sea, and is convinced it was no accident. The woman is rescued by sailors, but the baby she was carrying dies. The only clue is a saddlebag with the monogram CR, and Patterson is the only witness close enough to see even the shape of the horseman.

Patterson is involved with a visit by Richard Nightingale, a London ladder dancer, come to perform at the local theatre. This distraction, together with the antics of the loutish Cuthbert Ridley, and the demands of a slum child, Kate, to be taken on as Patterson’s apprentice to learn playing the violin, interfere with his attempts to discover the identity of the horseman. Then Nightingale is attacked.

This is an intriguing mystery, and the author makes good use of her expertise in researching the lives of musicians of the 18th century, and her local knowledge of Newcastle. Kate, insisting against all convention that she will perform in public, is a delightfully refreshing character. Patterson’s guilt at having money through marrying a wealthy woman rings true. I was not so convinced by the presence of the ‘spirits’ of the dead, who aid Patterson in his researches, or his and Kate’s ability to step through into a parallel world, which enables them to evade problems. It may be amusing, but it makes the detection easier than it might be.

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12 of the best stories selected from the 2012 Historical Novel Society Short Story Award







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